Jive Turkey

If you aren't wowed by Black Theatre Troupe's production of Willie and Esther, don't blame the actors. The pair of talented performers who traverse Thom Gilseth's vivid set give us their all, but ultimately they can't overcome flabby writing and misguided direction.

Willie and Esther is a comedy with a social conscience, but playwright Richard Graham Bronson is aiming for easy laughs, and never reaches beyond toe-curling stereotypes to get them. As a result, neither Willie nor Esther ever seems real, and -- without a tough-minded director to help shape them -- their story isn't much to behold.

Next-door neighbors Willie (Mike Traylor) and Esther (Masequa Myers) have been lovers for several years. He's a middle-aged boxboy, she's a hairdresser, and neither has a spare nickel between them. Reasoning that "stealing is America's pastime," the pair plans a bank robbery based on a story Willie saw on television. Using an eyeliner pencil, they scribble a stickup note, then stand around squabbling. They can't agree how much money to steal or what they'll do with it once they have it. In Act Two, the lovers meet in an alley to plan a heist of their landlord's hi-fi, with similar results.

Like the fellow who created them, neither Willie nor Esther ever gets beyond their best intentions. Bronson may have meant to write a comic commentary on the plight of the African American, but he's delivered a mishmash of worn-out ethnic jokes that, in these post-PC times, are just plain embarrassing. With bugged-out eyes and lousy grammar, the lovers rehash their troubles, all of them tied to money misfortunes. We see them planning a robbery and a burglary, but we never hear any commentary on the rotten system that leads them to this sort of scheming. The script's occasional epiphanies are couched in comedy, but the results are no less platitudinous.

Most of the laugh lines rely on the brainless antics of Willie and Esther, who think their chances of being caught depend on the amount of cash they steal. Willie, recalling the Watts riots, tells a story about how he stole a television and was later busted when he returned to the appliance store to swipe a six-pack ("Turns out they didn't even sell beer there!"). Much is made of the couple's inability to construct a solid sentence, and we're treated to twisted aphorisms like, "It's a doggy-dog world," and a description of "Einstein's theory of relatives" and, worse, an explanation of Esther's illness, which she calls "roses of the liver." This sort of dogeared, dogmatic dumbness might have once worked on the chitlin circuit, but today it plays like a commercial for welfare reform.

The actors struggle to bring Bronson's tepid comedy to life, particularly in the program's second half, a dreary heap of ruminations on life and death strung together by vague references to Esther's failing health. Myers is wonderfully animated as Esther, strutting and testifying and tallying up the times she bests her boyfriend. And Traylor's mobile face and frenetic gesturing fill up the theater with a cranky character bigger than the one on Bronson's page.

But for director Pemon Rami's contribution, this production of Willie and Esther might be written off as a well-acted mediocrity. Besides failing to edit and shape the monologues, Rami permits his leading lady (who also happens to be his wife) to step out of character during the story's final moments with long, coy glances that acknowledge the audience's laughter. It's too late in the game to bust through the fourth wall, and these few seconds spoil what's come before -- which was not, despite the actors' best intentions, worth all that much to begin with.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela